TRACTOR DECALS — Water Transfer, Mylar, or Vinyl?

Every make of vintage tractor featured in Antique Power magazine displays not only a trademark color, but also trademark decals. With words, letters, numbers, and images, decals serve to identify manufacturers and models. Decals depicting company logos, traditional designs, and symbols, add color and decoration and branding. Some decals, while not artistic or colorful, serve to provide information. Patent dates, safety reminders, operating instructions, and more are applied to a tractor by means of decals. In other words, decals are a crucially important aspect of tractors, old or new!

Once the fresh paint on your restoration thoroughly dries, it’s time to do that next step—adding decals. It can make any newbie nervous. In this post, we’ll look at the different types of decals—water transfer, Mylar, and vinyl—and their advantages and disadvantages. This post is not a comprehensive “how to,” but rather a general overview.

I asked Washington state tractor collector and restorer Al Downs to share some thoughts about his experiences with decals. He reminds us that they are opinions.

Water Transfer

These are also called “water slide” decals. In my childhood, when kids still had actual hobbies. Boys (mostly) spent hours making models. Every baby boomer remembers these water transfer decals on airplane wings and ships’ hulls. They are still available but have their disadvantages.

“It’s been a long time since I have heard someone talk about water transfer,” Downs said. “They could be a real pain if you didn't follow the wetting instructions or use a little known trick of putting a drop or two of dish washing soap in the water (makes the decal slide in place easier). Also they tended to a bit fragile.”

Downs noted other problems. They can rip or come apart. Even NOS decals, which might seem like great finds, can disappoint.

“Case in point, I have some vintage Caterpillar decals that have never been out of the box,” Downs said. “When I got them out to show a guy who needed them, well, as they unrolled, cracks appeared. Needless to say, now they’re good only as a static display.”

Here’s a case of a classic logo.

Here’s a case of a classic logo.

Even after these decals are applied, durability can be a problem, and so is fading. We have all seen old tractors with faint decals, checkered from too much sun. They still have charm, though. Tractors that have survived, wearing good original condition paint and original decals, are treasures to be respected, even with some cosmetic flaws.


Mylar decals, somewhat like the old-fashioned water transfer type, have a clear film around and between the letters and words. When you apply them to a painted surface, the color shows through. Protective peel-off paper covers both the sticky side and the design side that shows.

“When Mylar came out, we all started going ‘WAHOO!,’” Downs said. “Something easier to install. They also made reproductions easier to make (in my opinion) and as such, available to the restorer.”

Although weathered, this original decal on original paint looks great and says, “Hands off!”

Although weathered, this original decal on original paint looks great and says, “Hands off!”

Mylar decals are fairly easy to apply, especially if you first wet the surface with water to which a drop of dish soap has been added. The soap breaks the surface tension of the water, allowing you to gently slide the decal to adjust it. Some people use a window cleaner without ammonia or a commercial product for use with decals for the same purpose.

However, there are disadvantages. The clear film can have a different shine than your paint, and the edge of the film can be seen if closely examined. If you’ve just painted the surface, make sure it is completely dry! Give it more time than you think it needs. Unlike vinyl, Mylar doesn’t breathe. Trapped air bubbles are harder to remove.

“If you are really looking for accuracy then Mylar would be the way to go in my opinion, as it mimics water transfers that were used by a number of makers for a long time,” Downs said.

Instructional decals add extra authenticity to a restoration.

Instructional decals add extra authenticity to a restoration.


The application of any decals requires great care and accuracy in measuring and placement. Like the Mylar type, vinyl decal letters and numbers come with a paper backing that will be removed and another layer of paper protecting the design side. The difference is that rather than having letters and numbers already placed together on a clear film, they are individual units temporarily held in place by the paper to which they are attached.

Decals add color, style, and branding.

Decals add color, style, and branding.

Proper placement is critical, because you cannot adjust them like you can Mylar decals. Once they touch the surface, they stick. Advantages include what some consider a better appearance, good durability, and easier removal of air bubbles, because to some extent, vinyl breathes, letting air escape.

“I think vinyl decals, when applied right, are great looking on larger surfaces, like a hood,” Downs said. “With a little work, you can make them almost look hand-painted.”

Another factor to consider is cost.

“Vinyl decals are, on average, twice as expensive,” Downs said. “I bought a complete Mylar set of decals for an Allis-Chalmers, and they were under $30. I have never seen a vinyl set that cheap.”

These vinyl decals look perfect on this rare Wagner tractor.

These vinyl decals look perfect on this rare Wagner tractor.

Even after considering all these points, your decision might be made for you—the decals you need might be available in only one type.

There is so much more to learn on this topic, too much to include here. Next month, March 2017, the Newbie returns to discuss:

•      “Service decals” that manufacturers provided to dealers

•      How to be sure your decals are correct and authentic

•      Challenges of determining proper placement (which could change over time)

•      Sources and suppliers

•      Custom decals

•      Application tips and tricks

Until next time, enjoy your tractors!

This Oliver 60 decals offers a punch of pizazz.

This Oliver 60 decals offers a punch of pizazz.


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